OBETZ, Ohio – It pretty much goes without saying that the first leg of the Eastern Conference Championship is a huge opportunity for every member of Columbus Crew SC.
For Crew SC players and coaches, Tuesday night is a chance to notch a blow against a Toronto FC team that’s been historically great in 2017, a shot to move one step closer to hosting a second MLS Cup in three years, an opening to give a righteously indignant fan base a night of happiness and catharsis.
For Columbus captain and central midfielder Wil Trapp, Tuesday's game (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVAS) means even more than that.
The first leg against Toronto is an opportunity for the 24-year-old native of nearby Gahanna, Ohio to etch his name further into Crew SC lore during the most turbulent time in club history. As the possible 2019 move to Austin, Texas looms over the club, Trapp has a chance to give his hometown a magical night while going up against the best defensive midfielder the US has ever produced in Michael Bradley.
As a kid, Trapp looked up to Bradley, watching the now-30-year-old during his successful runs with several clubs in the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. On Tuesday, he’ll lock horns with him. They probably won’t cross paths all that often at MAPFRE Stadium (they’ll be more occupied with Federico Higuain and Victor Vazquez than they will with each other), but the series might just be decided by which player does a better job of setting the tempo for their team.
“It’s a fun narrative for the media to spin, for sure,” Trapp told reporters when asked about the matchup on Monday. “I think we certainly occupy similar roles on both of our teams. You want to first and foremost win the game, you want to play well, you want your team to play well, but to play against a guy like that is exciting, sure.”
To hear Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter and Trapp’s Columbus teammates tell it, the matchup with Bradley will be a measuring stick for Trapp. If he can outplay the Toronto FC star and lead Columbus to an upset series win, his profile in Ohio and around the league would likely rise significantly.
Trapp is already having perhaps his best season as a pro in 2017. He’s played all but 25 minutes of the Crew’s 37 regular-season and playoff matches and is the club’s midfield metronome, adeptly feeding attackers Higuain, Justin Meram, Pedro Santos and Ola Kamara to kickstart Columbus’ high-powered offense. He’s not as physical or as dominant a defender as Bradley, but he’s a huge presence for a Crew SC team that’s been stacking results since the start of August.
“I think Michael, when you watch Michael it’s different than when you play against him, because when you play against him you get to really appreciate what he brings to the game,” said Berhalter. “He brings, first of all, a work rate that is constant. He’s always working and he brings a physicality that I think is underplayed watching him on television. When you see it live you understand how physical Michael can be and that’s something that Wil has been working hard on, embracing that, getting into those battles and I think any time he plays against Michael, he gets to really measure up where he’s at.”
Similar to how Crew SC are the underdog against TFC, Trapp won’t be favored to get the best of Bradley. That sits fine with him and his teammates, however, who would be thrilled to continue their postseason run by taking out yet another Eastern Conference giant.
“I think he’s prepared for it, I think he’s ready for it,” Crew SC defender and Bradley’s former TFC teammate Josh Williams said of Trapp. “Obviously [Bradley’s] someone that Wil’s probably looked up to for a long time, but you live for moments like this. You always want to play against someone like that.
“I don’t want to put words in his mouth or anything like that, but to me, I feel like he’s ready to take this head-on. I feel like he’s chomping at the bit waiting for this to happen, and, as good as Michael is, you want to measure yourself against the best, I’ll put it that way.”